Research programme

The aim of this research programme is to look at music in Egypt as both an aesthetic production, requiring and relying upon technical know-how and specific technologies, and as an object of visual, intellectual and political representation. The notion of musical aesthetics is related to historical, cultural and social issues. These issues are first assessed through a focus on scholarly figures and institutional policies, which have had an enduring influence on the creation and distribution of the music of Egypt from the 19th century, especially though the elevation of said music to heritage status. They are then examined through the notion of the circulation of music and knowledge, especially technological, as evidence of intercultural exchange and the appropriation of external models

Theme 1: Scholarly figures and institutional policies

Several Egyptian musical “traditions” were identified, both stylistically and musicologically, in the second half of the 20th century. A periodization of the different styles in existence was even proposed, leading to studies concerning more generally the history of “Egyptian music” and the different reforms that created it, from the 19th century until the present day. These studies highlight in particular the undeniable cultural hegemony that Egyptian art music has exercised in the Arab world until recently. However, beyond the singers, poets, musicians and composers, who made the spread of this model possible from the 19th century, there are the scholarly personalities and the institutional policies that contributed to its development by endorsing the existence of a musical language that could supposedly lead to the identification of an essentialised musical Egyptianness, and then by spreading this beyond the national borders. In effect, from the 19th century onwards, Egyptian and foreign scholars systematically pointed a finger at either the degradation, impoverishment and imminent disappearance of the country’s music, or at the music’s lack of scientific nature and the disarray in its practice. Such discourse led to the herculean organisation of the Cairo Congress of Arab Music in 1932. This congress saw the beginning of a misunderstanding between the organisers, with, on one side, a “folklorist” vision, which wished to preserve musical traditions that were supposedly unsullied by any western or commercial influence, and, on the other, a desire to modernise a music now named “Arab” by introducing not only elements of the western instrumentarium but also by using modern recording technologies. This dichotomy has lasted until today. Numerous initiatives, both public (CULTNAT, the cultural palaces network) and private (Makan, El-Mastaba Centre) appeared, giving birth to centres whose stated aim was to save Egyptian music from oblivion and to promote a certain idea of the national music. This was not a specifically Egyptian phenomenon – as seen in the AMAR Foundation in Lebanon, itself endowed with numerous Egyptian recordings – but it displayed a certain vigour, especially in the capital.

Within this theme, we wish to reconsider the actions of these various participants and to understand why, how and through whom they existed, and which public they aimed at and reached. The objective is to assess to what extent do discourse, archives and institutions influence musical practice today, and to analyse the multiple implications.

Theme 2: Circulation, technologies and performance spaces

This second theme focuses on the recorded and unrecorded compositions that punctuate the history of music in Egypt throughout the 20th century, and that render the idea of a standardised musical language null and void. It looks first and foremost at the different musical media and the way that these have in part shaped the music. The emergence of the phonograph industry and its impact on musical practices have certainly been examined from the appearance of the 78-rpm disc in the first half of the 20th century. We consider the diversity of recordings in the second half of the 20th century, as well as the new musical media and the rise of the non-physical with digitisation. The development of digital has facilitated the distribution and circulation of genres outside the mainstream, leading to new forms of musical expression. We examine artists’ strategies with regard to the new forms of distribution, while looking at core issues (the cultural legitimacy associated with different media, prestigious box sets versus mp3 files, economic aspects, copyright etc.)

These movements lead us to update the question as to what is considered deviant in certain musical practices, and also to consider the differentiations and claims made by music through analysing the social lines that music lays down, which are potential factors of cultural segregation, if not simply confirmations or reinforcements of such. One must observe the contexts and spaces of musical production and the social uses of music, which intersect with wider cultural and social dynamics. By covering a deliberately vast stylistic and aesthetic field, such a study also allows us to reconsider the hegemony of Egyptian “classical” music and the grand personalities that created it. And lastly, particular attention is paid to the evolution of sound technology – amplification and other electroacoustic effects – and its appropriation. As participatory elements in the aesthetics of musical production, these technologies confer a constantly updating energy, both within compositions and the target audience, and they pose the question of relations with sound in its entirety.

This programme leads us to question the nature of relations between the different musical forms of Egypt, their space and their temporality, from the 19th century until the present day, in that which there is to be seen and heard. To what extent does the study of musical productions and their aesthetics inform us of the complexity of the multiple influences at work in contemporary Egyptian society, and what can we take from this for the cultural history of Egypt?